Neglected Crops In Copenhagen

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It is ironic, bordering on the bizarre, that agriculture merits so little attention in the climate change agreement to be finalized at this month's UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. There is a strong scientific consensus that altered growing conditions caused by climate change--such as increases in heat, drought, plant pests and disease--are going to damage food production rapidly and profoundly. The destabilizing effects on our food supply will be so far reaching that they are destined to disrupt, among other things, all of the carefully laid climate mitigation and adaptation measures it is hoped will emerge from Copenhagen.

The impact on food crops from higher temperatures alone could result in the worst famines ever experienced. For example, an analysis of IPCC climate models has found that within the next 20 years, southern Africa's maize crop will be cut by more than a quarter unless we start work now on producing heat-resistant varieties. By 2050 many African countries that are now heavily dependent on maize may not be able to grow it at all. And researchers are already warning about the increase in armed conflict in Africa as a direct result of such food shortages.

Wealthy countries are vulnerable as well. The heat wave that hit Europe in the summer of 2003 cut maize production in Italy by 36 percent. Fruit harvests in France fell by 21 percent. This was considered an unusually hot summer. But if the climate models being embraced in Copenhagen are accurate, outliers are about to become the norm. Soon, 2003 could look like a good year.

Among many people who actually acknowledge the threat, there is often a mistaken assumption that adapting crops to the changing conditions will be a relatively straightforward process. But there is no such thing as a single climate change gene. There are no guarantees that it can be done.

The enormity of the challenge underscores the importance of conserving as much crop diversity as possible. This, the raw material of crop breeding, is the primary resource the international community has to ensure food production can adapt to climate change. Collections of crop diversity, maintained in crop genebanks around the world, are our last best hope to supply plant breeders with the characteristics they need to develop resilient, climate-ready crop varieties.

It is impossible to talk about slowing climate change without talking about reducing CO2 emissions. Equally, it is impossible to talk about adapting to climate change without considering how we will feed ourselves. And it is out of the question that we can adapt agriculture without conserving crop diversity.

No one is suggesting that a climate change agreement can be a cure-all for the threats to food production. But in its current form, the agreement--perhaps because it is has been drafted largely by officials from environment, finance and foreign ministries--neither acknowledges the unprecedented perils to food production nor recognizes the importance of crop diversity to averting disaster.

However imperfect, the agreement that emerges from Copenhagen will set the agenda for action for at least the next decade. In its draft form, it acknowledges threats to a number of areas, such as forests, fisheries and biodiversity. If the treaty is silent on threats to agriculture, it will be immensely difficult to convince decision makers to invest in adaptation efforts, like maintaining gene banks and establishing breeding programs focused on climate change.

Clearly, Copenhagen is a deeply political process, into which science is merely one significant input. Against that backdrop, it should be welcome news that conserving crop diversity is easily achieved, almost disconcertingly so, given its importance. Science, policy and technical institutions are in place - only a couple of hundred million dollars are missing, which would secure the biological foundation of the world's food supply, forever. Small change, given the figures being flung around in the run-up to the Conference. If it is true that politics is the art of the possible, then a clause added to the agreement to achieve this would be a perfect demonstration of that art.

Cary Fowler is Executive Director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust.